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Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin
(Dec 6, 1805 – June 13, 1871)
Birthplace: Blois, France
Profession-changing contribution: Considered the father of modern magic, Robert-Houdin was one of the first illusionists to work in a theater rather than set up in a marketplace or at a fair. And he wore formal wear -- what we now think of as the classic magician's attire -- to distinguish himself from other magicians. He also helped quell a potential rebellion of the Arabs in Algeria, who were being riled into action by local shamen. Napoleon III sent Robert-Houdin to Algeria in 1856 to out-perform the shamen, which he did.
Fun fact: After a failed attempt to learn law, Robert-Houdin became a watchmaking apprentice to follow in his father's footsteps. A bookseller, thinking he was giving Robert-Houdin two books on clock making accidentally gave him two volumes about magic, called Scientific Amusements. Poof! (You get the idea.)